For Iran, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan is a problem

British soldiers from 21 Air Assault Battery Royal Artillery pictured in Afghanistan in 2006. [Getty]
9 min read
20 July, 2021
Analysis: The speed of both the withdrawal of US forces and the Taliban offensive will cause geopolitical shifts, and Iran is watching with concern.

When US President Joe Biden announced earlier this year that he intended to withdraw American forces from Afghanistan by 11 September 2021, international observers warned that it could have serious regional consequences.

Recent events confirm these fears. Afghanistan is on the verge of collapse, with various European intelligence services predicting that the impact will be felt as far away as Europe by the end of 2021.

The Taliban are advancing steadily in provincial areas of Afghanistan. Their forces have attacked several areas in the north of the country, and in a desperate retreat, thousands of Afghan soldiers and members of pro-government militias crossed the border from Badakhshan province to Tajikistan.

"Afghanistan's northern border areas are raising concerns about the spillover of the conflict to Central Asia as US forces gradually withdraw"

Once a bastion of the alliance against the Taliban, today northern Afghanistan is becoming a springboard for attacks on major cities in the region, including possibly the capital Kabul.

Afghanistan's northern border areas are raising concerns about the spillover of the conflict to Central Asia as US forces gradually withdraw, including from the iconic Bagram airbase, from where they conducted their main operations.

Against this backdrop, Tajik President Emomali Rahmon ordered the mobilisation of around 20,000 reservists to the border and the country is already building refugee camps in the event of an influx of fleeing civilians.

Tajikistan is the poorest country in Central Asia and any political tremors would have serious consequences. For now, Tajik authorities have left the border crossings currently held by the Taliban in Afghanistan open, including the main bridge at Shir Khan Bandar, built by the US Army Engineer Corps in 2007.

For Iran, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan is a problem
The Afghan National Army stand guard at a checkpoint on the road near the Bagram airfield in Kabul, Afghanistan, 3 July 2021. [Getty]

According to US media, the Taliban are already collecting customs duties on the main trading post between Tajikistan and Afghanistan, and there are similar reports coming from other border areas.

The speed of both the withdrawal of US forces and the Taliban offensive - surprising even for the government in Kabul – will cause geopolitical shifts, and worries both international observers and regional governments.

Humanitarian organisations warn of the potential for another major refugee crisis if the conflict deepens, while since January more than 270 000 civilians were displaced, according to UN figures.

The security situation is deteriorating dramatically, including in the capital Kabul. Several terrorist attacks on civilians and public figures have taken place since last autumn.

Against this backdrop of instability, there is also movement from the local branch of the Islamic State (IS), which has de facto control in part of Jalalabad, east of Kabul.

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Current events in Afghanistan are provoking processes that may soon have a global dimension due to the importance of the region for trade and geopolitical influence. In early July, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov expressed concern about the changing situation on the front lines in northern Afghanistan.

The Kremlin is worried that a potential spillover of the conflict to Tajikistan and neighbouring countries in Central Asia will affect the security of the Russian Federation, which maintains some of its largest bases outside its territory in Tajikistan. Lavrov blamed in part the Kabul government and "the hasty withdrawal of NATO".

There are also concerns about Iran, which has always viewed its eastern border with distrust. Although Tehran has been excluded from talks between the United States and the Taliban in Qatar, the Iranians have a long-shared history with Afghanistan.

There are strong cultural and linguistic ties between the two nations, and Herat, the largest city in western Afghanistan, was once part of Iran and has a significant place in Persian culture.

During the 1979-1989 war in Afghanistan, the Iranians did not pay much attention to building anti-Soviet resistance because they were preoccupied with their conflict with Iraq.

"The speed of both the withdrawal of US forces and the Taliban offensive - surprising even for the government in Kabul – will cause geopolitical shifts"

They invested in the creation of militias among the Shia population, which after the withdrawal of the Soviet army united in the Islamic Unity Party of Afghanistan, but this was a relatively small endeavour compared to the Sunni Mujahideen groups supported by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United States.

This limited policy did not allow Iran to influence the events of that time, which had a dramatic turn in 1996 and the coming to power of the Taliban.

Iran's interests in Afghanistan are partly related to efforts to strengthen the country's Persian-speaking population and protect Shia Muslims, who make up one-fifth of Afghans and who have been attacked in recent years, including by Islamic State cells.

And while outside observers often cite religion as a major role in Iran's policies, it is not just a matter of religious differences between Tehran and an extreme Sunni movement like the Taliban.

Above all, Iran wants stability in Afghanistan to compensate for the troubled common border. The Soviet occupation in the 1980s and the ensuing instability caused a wave of more than three million Afghans to flee to Iran, where their presence often caused internal strife and tension.

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In addition, Tehran fears that Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Turkey will use the instability in Afghanistan to increase their presence on Iran's eastern flank.

Although Washington and Tehran diverge in many other places, their interests are not mutually exclusive in Afghanistan. Iran does not want to turn its eastern neighbour into an arena of conflict between itself and the United States.

It is significant that Iran does not attack US bases and troops in Afghanistan, as it does through proxies in Iraq and Syria, because this would guarantee turmoil and instability on Iran's eastern border for years to come.

Today, Iranian politicians want US forces to leave Afghanistan because they are convinced that the situation in the country can now be managed diplomatically. The more Iran puts stability at the heart of its strategy for Afghanistan, the more it improves relations with its former enemy, the Taliban.

Like the United States, Iran already sees the Taliban as its only way to build a security buffer in neighbouring Afghanistan.

For Iran, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan is a problem
Afghan militias gather with their weapons to support Afghanistan security forces against the Taliban in Herat on 9 July 2021. [Getty]

Iran's ties to the Taliban have been the subject of a long debate in the West, although there is no clear evidence of real collaboration so far. However, there are arguments for the existence of political contacts between the Taliban leadership and Tehran.

In December 2018, Ali Shamkhani, Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council of Iran, confirmed that Iran has begun negotiations with the Taliban - in coordination with the government in Kabul - to address the "precarious insecurity" in Afghanistan.

Earlier this year, an Afghan delegation led by Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar arrived in Tehran and met with senior Iranian officials as part of what the foreign ministry said was “consultations to promote peace” in war-torn Afghanistan.

Indeed, many factions in the Taliban have a distrust of Iran and the communities it supports, but not all - part of the group's leadership want to establish better ties with Tehran.

The May-June Taliban offensive this year also shows that the group is currently calculating its ties with Iran. For example, the borders with Turkmenistan and Tajikistan have been attacked directly and taken under Taliban control, while in the Herat area and western Afghanistan the situation is far calmer, which may be due to Tehran's influence on local Taliban structures.

"Tehran fears that Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Turkey will use the instability in Afghanistan to increase their presence on Iran's eastern flank"

To strengthen its position in the wake of the US withdrawal, Iran is also working at the regional level. Tehran has strong differences with the other regional power here, Pakistan, and Islamabad has had direct interests in Kabul's political life for decades.

Tehran accuses the Pakistani government of inciting anti-Iranian sentiments in the Balochistan region, divided between Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran. Recent news reports also worry Iran.

Turkey, increasingly entering Central Asia and the Caucasus, is targeting Afghanistan as a potential path to expand its influence and strengthen its image in NATO after the rupture caused by its deal with Russia for the S-400 missile system.

Ankara is proposing to take over the defence of Kabul International Airport, but Turkish interests go far beyond the Afghan capital, especially over control of trade and military lines in the region, to the detriment of Iran. Turkey also proposes to work with Pakistan on Taliban-Afghanistan government talks, at the expense of Iran's efforts.

Monitoring the trends in Turkey's foreign policy, in April this year, General Mohammad Bagheri, Chief of the General Staff of the Iranian Armed Forces, met with the Minister of Defence of Tajikistan, with whom they signed an agreement to establish a joint military defence committee.

Perspectives

The agreement appears to be a well-considered move by Iran, as Tajikistan is the only non-Turkic country in Central Asia and has influence in Afghanistan, where part of the elite is made up of Tajiks.

Tajikistan also has serious concerns about its long border with Afghanistan, and rapprochement with culturally close Iran is welcome, despite tensions between the two countries in the past. Dushanbe is also concerned about Turkish involvement in the Central Asia region and the links between Ankara and Kyrgyzstan, with which the Tajik leadership has territorial disputes.

Developments in Afghanistan are yet to unfold, and it is clear to local governments that they need to take new approaches to stabilise their own positions. The Taliban offensive, as well as the withdrawal of the United States from the region, is creating new momentum.

Pakistan and Iran could enter an even wider confrontation of interests if Islamabad joins forces with Turkey. Russia is watching Tehran's actions, with which it has growing disagreements both in Syria and over the Caucasus and Central Asia.

"It is likely that Afghanistan will fall under the broad control of the Taliban, and the country's border areas will become buffer zones created by different countries"

Let us not forget China, which is already feeling the pressure of being a growing superpower. Its interests have been attacked in Pakistan, and the Taliban distrust Beijing; the Chinese, who have criticised the US presence in Afghanistan, fear anarchy and instability because of the Taliban, who already control the Wakhan Corridor.

It is highly likely that China and Iran are currently holding talks on Afghanistan, which is not good news for either Turkey or Russia.

It is also likely that Afghanistan will fall under the broad control of the Taliban, and the country's border areas will become buffer zones created by different countries.

Western Afghanistan with the presence of Iran; Kabul with Turkish and international forces; northern Afghanistan with shared protection from Russia, and the east - from Pakistan. Only time will tell.

Ruslan Trad is the author of 'The Murder of a Revolution' and co-author of 'The Russian Invisible Armies'. His journalistic work is focused on PMCs, Syria, and conflict zones. 

Follow him on Twitter: @ruslantrad